Freed Death-Row Inmate Kills Self

Paula Cooper gained support of pope when sentenced to death at 16
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 28, 2015 8:36 AM CDT
Freed Death-Row Inmate Kills Self
This May 29, 1985, photo provided by the Lake County, Ind., police department shows Paula Cooper at 15.   (AP Photo/Lake County Police Depatmrnt via The Indianapolis Star)

(Newser) – Paula Cooper, once the youngest death-row inmate in the US, has been found dead of a suicide two years after she was released after 27 years in prison. Police say Cooper, 45, was found dead near an ITT Technical Institute parking lot in Indianapolis on Tuesday. She suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head; a handgun was found in her lap. "It's an unusual ending to a tragic case," a lawyer tells the Indianapolis Star. "I've been involved in a lot of cases in my life, and nothing compared to this case." Armed with a 12-inch butcher knife, 15-year-old Cooper led three friends into the home of Ruth Pelke, 78, in 1985 after feigning an interest in Bible lessons. They knocked Pelke to the ground and Cooper climbed on top of her, demanding money, before stabbing her 33 times. The youths made off with just $10 and an old car, the AP reports.

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Sentenced to death, Cooper drew the support of millions, including Pope John Paul II, before the Indiana Supreme Court commuted her sentence. The state then raised the minimum age for a death sentence from 10 to 16, and later to 18. "She was so sorry for the crime that she committed, and she worked hard to change her life," Cooper's sister says, per the Indianapolis Star. "While in prison, my sister grew from a teenager into a strong woman, and she was trying to build a future outside of those prison walls she had come to call home." A grandson of Pelke, who visited and emailed Cooper while she was in prison, says she hoped to dedicate her life to restorative justice and helping other abuse victims "so they didn't end up like her." He last spoke to her in August. "I thought she was doing well," he says. "I have no idea what was going on in her life." (Read more Paula Cooper stories.)

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